Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 26, 2019
Margo Natalie Crawford Black Post-Blackness: The Black Arts Movement and Twenty-First-Century Aesthetics New Black Studies Series. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2017. 280 pp.; 35 b/w ills. Paperback $28.00 (9780252082498)

Margo Natalie Crawford’s titular concept in Black Post-Blackness: The Black Arts Movement and Twenty-First-Century Aesthetics is oceanic: it is multifaceted and much encompassing. As the introduction explains, black post-blackness is an aesthetics of expressions of free self-determination, of a future blackness that shapes the present still. It is a mood and a shape of time, and also an understanding of that cultural mood and temporal shape as interdependent and in flux. 

More concretely, Black Post-Blackness seeks to correct reductive constructions that situate twenty-first-century art and literature by artists and writers such as Glenn Ligon, Claudia Rankine, Kerry James Marshall, and Colson Whitehead—sometimes called “post-black”—in contrast to that of the early 1970s Black Arts Movement (BAM), because post-black art reportedly favors more individualizing forms of self-expression over the BAM’s strategic essentialism. Thelma Golden, whose catalog essay for Freestyle (2001) popularized the term, defined post-black as “shorthand for post-black art,” associating “black art” with what she called “the nationalist/aesthetic dogma of the 1970s Black Arts Movement.” In contrast, Golden characterized Freestyle’s post-black artists as “adamant about not being labeled as ‘black’ artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness” (Freestyle, Studio Museum in Harlem, 2001). 

Black Post-Blackness offers an important redress, as the years following Freestyle saw increasing uses of the “post-” prefix that depoliticized contemporary expressions of subalterned identities and represented earlier forms as outmoded by dint of their critiques of institutionalized bigotry. (Those interested may find a longer discussion of this history in American Art 28 no. 1 [Spring 2014], “The Particulars of Post-Identity,” edited by Cherise Smith and Jessica L. Horton.) Yet as Crawford observes in her introduction: “The push to the mixed media, abstraction, satire, and sheer experimentation in twenty-first-century African American literature and visual art is sometimes framed as a push away from the narrowness of the category ‘black art,’ but it is often a push back to the mixed media, abstraction, satire, and experimentation in the BAM” (3–4).  

Accordingly, the book presents two overlapping and interdependent arguments. One, Crawford contends that to dismiss the BAM’s aesthetic complexity is to ignore the mutually nourishing relationship between personal expression and political experience in both eras. Two, Crawford claims that we find this relationship through a historiography based in a “tidalectic” rather than linear temporality; this historiography is black post-blackness. Crawford adapts “tidalectics” from a 1991 exchange between Kamau Brathwaite and Nathaniel Mackey in which the latter explains it as “dialectics with my difference . . . instead of the notion of one-two-three, Hegelian [thesis-antithesis-synthesis], I am now interested in the movement of the water backwards and forwards as a kind of cyclic, I suppose, motion, rather than linear” (3). Using myriad comparative examples to describe moments of “flow, layering, and rupture” between BAM and twenty-first-century black artists, organized in chapters devoted to “anticipation, abstraction, counter-literacy (mixed media), the global-local, satire, public interiority, and the substance of style,” Crawford shows how these aesthetic tactics focus on simultaneously being black, being beyond black (post-black), and becoming black. “The most radical black aesthetic movements,” she writes, “are always anticipating the next step ‘beyond blackness’ and actually shaping whatever blackness is around the impulse to imagine the unimaginable” (3).   

Crawford’s tidalectical structure demands attentive reading, as her analyses of individual works sometimes build across the book’s entirety: appearing, submerging, turning up again. Crawford’s discussion of AfriCOBRA/BAM member Nelson Stevens’s Work to Unify African People (1973), for example, appears four times in Black Post-Blackness: pictured and discussed in “The Politics of Abstraction” (chapter 2), twice in “The Counter-Literacy of Black Mixed Media” (chapter 3), and again in “Black Inside/Out: Public Interiority and Black Aesthetics” (chapter 6). Taken altogether, these dispersed iterations explain that the polychrome manifolds of the two faces in Stevens’s Boston mural use shine, an abstracting tactic for AfriCOBRA, and that the way that shininess visually fractures the surfaces of things implies “unification through fragmentation.” In chapter 2, Crawford observes that Stevens’s unifying/fragmenting shine finds echoes in Omar Lama’s stained-glass-like composition for Haki Madhubuti’s 1968 broadside for black people (and negroes too): a poetic statement on black existence with a view of tomorrow, and shows how fragmentation unifies words and images in both BAM works as a form of counterliteracy. When Crawford develops this interest in surface in “Black Inside/Out” it supports her comparison of BAM and post-black interests in creating public spaces for the expression of black inner life. Comparing Stevens’s murals to Kara Walker’s A Subtlety (2014), Crawford observes that antiblack public reactions to these works “turn the art in its original form inside out,” and thus both suggest different approaches to “the use of public space to open up a vulnerable, ‘terrible’ interior” (176). As in other examples, varying aspects of the black post-blackness Crawford sees in Work to Unify African People surface in different areas to illuminate other instances of the phenomenon: a tidalectics. 

That Crawford aims at a mood, a shape of time—an ocean—in a scholarly text, with the genre’s usual onus of linear argumentation, is courageous. Her passion engages, and readers will appreciate the wealth of her archival research into the BAM (I have recommended the book to four scholars already). And while Crawford rightly compares literary and visual works under black post-blackness’s aegis—after all, such institutional divisions did not mean much to BAM artists and poets intentionally working outside white-dominated institutions—readers fluent in the visual may find themselves frustrated by her diffuse treatment of artworks amid the numerous comparisons that populate all but one chapter. (“Who’s Afraid of the Black Fantastic? The Substance of Surface,” for example, rings in at twenty-five pages and describes ten BAM works and four twenty-first-century works, an average of three-fifths of a page per work of literature or visual art.) For all its breadth, Black Post-Blackness could use more depth as well as rigorous organization at the subsection level. Often enough, the descriptive and analytical brevity renders black post-blackness as more adjective than argument; Crawford tells more than shows. 

Take the characteristic pairing of Ligon’s Condition Report (2000) with Stevens’s Work to Unify African People toward the end of “The Counter-Literacy of Black Mixed Media.” Both are black post-black, argues Crawford, as both share an interest in mixed media as “an ongoing form of black counter-literacy that privileges the ephemeral and process-oriented over the bound and fixed nature of a ‘text’” (82). (I should explain here that what Crawford most frequently means by “mixed media” is multisensorial word-and-image works, a definition that I encountered for the first time in this book.) Of Stevens’s polychrome-lettered mural, Crawford explains that it

forces us to see letters as colors (to not only read them), and this synesthesia allows the power of black aesthetics unbound to deepen. . . . Stevens’s depiction of seeing colors while reading highlights the movement’s interest in alternative pedagogy and alternative ways of reading. Learning to read with color (and in color) is Stevens’s expression of the movement’s desire to make art that makes sense by calling upon multiple senses and thereby producing the feeling of black aesthetics unbound (101). 

It’s tautological: synesthesia deepens the power of black aesthetics unbound (i.e., black post-blackness) to fuel alternative readings, and learning to read synesthetically produces the feeling of black aesthetics unbound. Nor does the comparison to Condition Report clarify. Of Ligon’s two copies of the famous “I AM A MAN” signs of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, Crawford states that the right-hand print’s indices on hairline cracks, smudges, and other deteriorations “makes viewers think about the unique texture of each individual sign as opposed to the focus on the power of the collective signs in the iconic photographs of the sanitation workers” (100). This builds on and examines Stevens’s “sensory-overload approach to black aesthetics” by drawing viewers’ attention to the sign’s barely visible marks: “Ligon makes the sensory overload of synesthesia morph into a sensory denuding (the stripping tied to being unable to feel and know everything that has settled on the signs carried in the black freedom struggle),” concludes Crawford (101).

Nowhere does she mention that the “brown drips,” “feather crack,” “loss at edge,” “dark scrape,” and other such notes in Condition Report’s right-hand print are the conservator’s notes on damage to Ligon’s 1988 painting of the Memphis sanitation workers’ signs (Untitled [I Am a Man]), of which Condition Report’s left print is an unannotated reproduction. That Condition Report negotiates so much more subtly with concepts of collective and individual expression and authorship than Crawford allows: from the sanitation workers’ collective expressions of selfhood to Ligon’s quotation into painting-based discourses of artistic self-expression—in 1988 no less, when Untitled (I Am a Man) spoke to then-incendiary arguments concerning art-institutional exclusions and/or tokenism of people of color and white women—to Ligon’s 2000 quoting of his own oeuvre just as he and Golden were using the term “post-black” between themselves. All this strikes me as good grist for elucidating black post-blackness, given Crawford’s stated impulse to track the flows between personal versus collective forms of representing blackness aesthetically. 

Thus, as much as I can see that the BAM and the so-called post-black period share more connections than differences, and as much as I appreciate tidalectic histories, I am not sure that Black Post-Blackness received the space-time it needed to convince not necessarily sympathetic readers (here I am thinking mainly of readers outside comparative literature’s disciplinary spaces). Perhaps it needed twice as many pages and/or weightier interdisciplinary collaboration. I would have liked to read more.

Ariel Evans
Contemporary Art Research Fellow, African and African Diaspora Studies, The University of Texas at Austin